By Kurt Jensen
NEW YORK (CNS) — Old people are inherently cute and Drug Enforcement Administration agents reflexively racist in “The Mule” (Warner Bros.).
This ambling, fact-based story of an octogenarian drug runner who becomes a success at it because no one, evidently, believes he’s capable of such a dangerous task is more than a little morally tone deaf.
Clint Eastwood, who directed from a script by Nick Schenk, plays Earl Stone, an easygoing Illinois horticulturist who has neglected his ex-wife, Mary (Dianne Wiest), and daughter Iris (Eastwood’s real-life daughter Alison) for years while puttering around the country hawking prize-winning daylilies. Only granddaughter Ginny (Taissa Farmiga) loves him unconditionally.
He can’t keep up with online competition, however. Soon his business is in foreclosure and he’s living out of his rusty old pickup truck.
He has a quick turnaround when a young Latino man makes him an offer to be a drug mule. He’ll haul cocaine from El Paso, Texas, back to the Midwest for astonishing and ever larger amounts of cash, relatively little peril and an expensive new truck.
Earl, whom his employers call Tata, has a perfect driving record. Thus, except for his habit of making side trips for the best off-road cuisine, he’s virtually invisible to law enforcement.
He also befriends his thuggish new bosses — who are made to appear as pleasantly dutiful working stiffs — and starts showing largesse toward his relatives and his local Veterans of Foreign Wars hall. None of the recipients ever bothers to ask about the source of his sudden wealth.
The script draws on the real-life story of Leo Sharp, an elderly daylily grower from Indiana who smuggled cocaine for the Sinaloa cartel and was profiled in The New York Times in 2014.
“The Mule” doesn’t address the question of doing an immoral job to achieve positive ends. It also treats Earl’s crusty racist utterances as a harmless affectation, as when he stops to help a black couple change a tire and cheerfully blurts out, “I like helping you Negro people.”
Likewise, drug agents Bates (Bradley Cooper) and Trevino (Michael Pena), under pressure from their superiors, have great trouble finding Earl because they’re too busy pulling over brown-skinned drivers.
Grown viewers will see through the attempt to portray loveably cantankerous Earl as a noble figure. Taken together with the elements listed below, though, the narrative’s willful ignorance of the downside of the narcotics trade makes “The Mule” wholly unsuitable for young people.
The film contains an implied nonmarital sexual encounter, fleeting upper female nudity, some gore-free gunplay and frequent rough language. The Catholic News Service classification is A-III — adults. The Motion Picture Association of America rating is R — restricted. Under 17 requires accompanying parent or adult guardian.
Jensen is a guest reviewer for Catholic News Service.